Philosophy of Existentialism

03.05.2015 |

Episode #5 of the course “Brief history of Contemporary philosophy”

Existentialism is a term describing the loosely-connected theories of 19th and 20th century European philosophers who considered questions about “being human” as the principal concern of philosophy. Because existentialism is so loosely defined, several philosophers are labeled as existential in addition to their other philosophical labels. The two most well-known existentialists are the French writers Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Their names are linked with existentialism in ways that other philosophers may not be. Although neither identified as existentialist, they both exemplify the common themes of existentialism with greater consistency than other philosophers.

Existentialists greatly value freedom and the authentic anxiety of conscious living. Although the individual’s experience and freedom is of utmost importance, they also consider the context that places limitations on freedom. Existentialism values natural consequence and the living practice of philosophy. They believe that people must make choices, that those choices will cause anxiety, and that a person improves by struggling against their individual nature in making these choices. Existentialists see human existence as unique in the universe and humans as bearing the unique responsibility of intensely experiencing and reflecting on the human condition.

The theory of existentialism greatly influenced literature and theater, especially the plays of Irish writer Samuel Beckett. This playwright is said to have believed that the trauma of simply being oneself and having to endure the burden of living was enough to inspire some of his most interesting existential works, such as Not I. In existentialist philosophy, the idea of becoming “not I”—not oneself—because of conformity to social norms reduces the person to merely an object. The only thing the audience sees on stage during Beckett’s production is a woman’s mouth, and they only thing they hear is her voice.


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